Passing By

I had fun taking pictures of people walking down our block.  Nice conversations and even a face from the past.  It’s time to stock up on new brushes. The wall eats them up.  Jenifer reported on the Tuesday taxi strike. They circled the block 3 deep honking. The “community” keeps messing with our scaffolding. Taking off safety bars, breaking off the wood climbing guards, pushing the frames off of their blocks.  I have had Access Scaffolding over 3 times to fix it.  The small legless guy was really drunk/high/angry on Friday. He rolled into the middle of the intersection and screamed at the cars trying to cross. The woman in the bright blue shirt (who would like us to paint people smoking crack in the mural as a warning to the children) was laughing “He does that all the time to get the attention of the dealers”.   I painted the big blue flower at one end of the mural and birds blowing out of the trumpet on the other side. John painted gold stripes with blues and orange at the entrance.

Week 4: Tenderloin Heights

Civic Center Post Office Mural: Street Art/ Mural Performance Painting/ Social Theater

It’s either “Tenderloin Heights” or “Tondo (famous slum in Manila) in the Tenderloin”.  Our scaffolding is periodically inhabited.  There are sleeping things stuffed in the tree next to the second level.  I call it the “Garden Level” .  We look over the top planks gingerly every work day hoping for no surprises. What’s worse, a tag or some human dung. Hmmmmm.  Hard to say.

One of the young guys of the Honduran corner drug cartel took quite a bit of interest in my painting style today.  “Do you have much experience?”  “Yes I do, lots of practice. I’m old, 54”  “No! you’re not old. You look young. You have a nice figure”  I do accept compliments in my layers of paint rags while I quickly focus back in on the wall.

Cristina, my student, helped again last week.  Spanish is her first language so she was quickly engaged by our fellow corner dwellers. One of the older guys (as in maybe 29) apologized to her for selling drugs while she painted.  “I have to. It doesn’t matter what I do if they catch me they will send me back.”  Much of their conversation Cristina later reported concerned friends caught by Immigration.

The police are not around this week.  People are corralled into this neighborhood.  Arrests seem very arbitrary. There is no space in California prisons and clearly not enough mental health services.  An anti Drug War demonstration came down the street last Friday.  The police were all around that.  There was also a bomb scare at the Federal building 2 blocks down so it crowded up on our block that day. A little too cozy. A blind man knocked over a blue jar of paint and it splatted on to the sidewalk.

So many places to eat in the Tenderloin but we go everyday to the quiet Vietnamese restaurant right down the street.  We are treated very well its great food. People are pointing out their favorite sections of the mural now.  The colors get richer. The Hummingbirds flutter around. Taj Mahal flowers in yellow and payne’s gray. Venetian red and quinacridone majenta.  It was the hottest day of the year today. Julie and Molly, Jenifer’s students braved the heat to paint the black and blue borders. John sweated out some garden level painting while Jenifer and I stayed underneath the scaffolding for shade.

Week 3: Corner Street Theater

This week we nearly finished the corner.  It will be good to move away from the apex of all the activity.  The wheelchairs and overloaded shopping carts tightly navigate the turn.  Trying to keep the wet paintbrushes from accidentally getting on someone’s clothes requires constant vigilance. It’s hard not to bump into the stony faced African American guy standing dead center, on the look out for police, working for the Honduran drug dealers who circle the site. He’s not unfriendly. I have a much more visceral reaction to the ragged white girl in a mini skirt that barely stays on. She is so shrill and in need of her crack or attention or something. She has sores, scrapes and bruises.  She was sitting in the gutter the other day picking at her black eye with tweezers. She  can speak pretty good Spanish as she harasses the drug dealers.  They tolerate her to a certain extent. Part of the business.

The Honduran dealers are not drug addicts.  They are not flashy except for the one with eyebrows that look tattoed on.  Maybe he goes in drag at night. Handsome and a bit pretty.  We sometimes very slightly acknowledge each other, just enough to be friendly but not enough to be in each other’s way.  The short guy with the raspy voice on his cell was not around this week.  Monday was amazingly quiet.  It was misting that day, verging on rain.  There were Chihuahuas, one white and one black, barking in the front seat of a big white truck parked next to us.  On Wednesday my student Cristina came all the way from Monterey to paint. John worked with her on the Hyde Street side, painting symbols while a homeless man slept, passed out, next to them.

Was it Wednesday or Thursday that the small dark legless man in a wheelchair,  high on something to ease the pain, talked urgently to Jenifer.  “I see elephants! Elephants! Paint elephants in the mural” .   The day before an older woman with a big cross asked if I could paint her naked.   Oh, she said,  you have skills, and taking a longer look at the mural she exclaimed “I feel it! I really feel it” .  Soon after a Chinese grandmother in a wheelchair gunned down the sidewalk and ran over my foot.

A sharply dressed woman, who has worked at the Civic Center Post Office for 20 years was full of warning the first day I met her.  Lately she is coming out to see our progress, posing in front of the wall.  She apparently knows some of the regulars that populate the corner and jokes around with them.  “I know you want to date me! I’ve got a job, I’ve got a place to live!”   On the inside, the inner sanctum of the post office she continues her warnings.  It’s all survival she says. Be careful. Be smart. But they know you are just there to paint. Our building looks so big! My friends may even visit me here now.

I had a conversation with one of the Honduran guys the other day. He’s been in San Francisco for 2 months.  He lived in Ohio before he came. His family is still there. His three baby daughters. He wants to go back to Honduras. His partner  got into a scuffle with a pudgy white guy about a picture he took, about living in the neighborhood, about calling the police.  The dealers all disappeared, the police did come and took a report. The angry shirtless guy paced up and down the sidewalk talking about the “snitch”.  I saw him push a haggard old woman against the wall asking for money as she protested and squirmed away.

An hour later they were all back, including the young Honduran gal in her jeans and simple shirt. Nondescrip.  A modest and unexpected crack and pill dealer. An unperturbed blank look on her face. I greeted her yesterday.  Now she always says “Hey mama” .  Lots of  “Hey mama, Hey papas” all day long.  “Thank you hijo” says a relatively healthy looking customer to the guy with the sharp eyebrows as she takes her pills.  People are addicted to pain pills all over the United States  – over the counter , under the counter…so much pain it seems.  One of the best comments this week from an appreciative passerby  “Art makes life tolerable”.   We are fashioned into a spectator population when we need to be participants in the creative moment.

All the time we are painting, wrapped up in the colors and lines. The passersby love the mural. The women in the Coffee Shop across the street are ecstatic. The Hummingbirds keep appearing. Every curve of the Khmer Leaf design is painstakingly being painted by Jenifer in full OCD mode, who still manages to be friendly to drunk dwarfs seeking elephants.  It is a great corner site, an exciting but exhausting gig painting in the micro climates of the scaffolding. Hot on one side and cold on the other. Sweet and sinister, everyday living mixed with screeches of pain.  My favorite compliment this week: “The Hummingbird is a motherfucking powerful bird.”

Week 2: Rain and Paint

We dodged rain this week but did find ourselves standing under the scaffolding in the mist. We got the drawing done and the first color areas on the wall.

I painted the hummingbird on the corner for good luck!

Week 1: Civic Center Post Office Mural

Civic Center Post Office Mural – 101 Hyde and Golden Gate

Week 1:

“Humming With Life”, the title of this mural is an understatement.  The Post Office building at the corner of Hyde and Golden Gate is a magnet for drug dealers, crack addicts and homeless folks looking for a spot to lie down.  The Tenderloin has long been the neighborhood that offers services to the down and out so this is where they live  with the vibrant mix of cultures and community in the North of Market of downtown San Francisco. The Civic Center Post Office does not sell stamps or send mail.  It has endless rows of post office boxes for people without permanent addresses.

Occupation of public space is not for everyone but for those of us that like to paint big public architectural shapes, are interested in community,  social practices and live street theater street it’s a compelling form of art.  In the competition for the real estate of public consciousness between corporate advertising and non-commercial cultural expression murals have led the way.

Corner sites are excellent.   I was interested in creating movement around the corner, opening it up rather than bringing it to a point.  The composition is a layering of a musical score, a garden of cultural architectural motifs and hummingbirds that fly in large to intimate scale through out the design.  A light-hearted greeting to a heavy-hearted site.  The humming bird’s heart is half of its weight.  It brings delight, energy and hope when it appears.